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Spices on Shelves
Credit: Jonny Valiant

This article originally appeared on Real Simple

Spices are one of the best weapons a cook can have in her arsenal: they're affordable, they're shelf-stable, and they can revolutionize a dish. But to get the most bang for your buck, spices need to be properly stored—and if they're stashed in a spice rack above your stove, it's time to re-arrange.

According to Padma Lakshmi, host of Bravo's Top Chef and author of the new book The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs, spices should actually be kept in a kitchen drawer. Why? "[Spices] get old when they hit the sun and the heat from the stove," Lakshmi told So that cabinet by the window? Not a great choice either—the heat causes the spices to lose their flavor more quickly.

If you have a few extra minutes, Lakshmi also recommends buying whole spices—even in the case of a black peppercorn—and grinding them yourself. Not only do whole spices last longer, but grinding them right before use will add an extra dimension of flavor to your dish. If you don't have a spice grinder, you can buy a small one for under $20, or you can use a coffee grinder, a mortar and pestle, or a molcajete (what guacamole is often made in). And before you grind them, Lakshmi suggests toasting the spices in a dry frying pan for two to three minutes over medium heat. "You will taste the difference, you will smell the difference," she says.

It's important, too, to use spices throughout the cooking process instead of dumping them in one time and then moving on. "I believe in seasoning from start to finish," she says. "Building the flavor, layering the flavor so that it cooks properly and gets into the food. That is what makes a good cook. I always tell people to taste as you go. If it tastes good to you, then it's probably right."